Southampton returned to winning ways as they got their Europa League adventure of to a spectacular start with a 3-0 win over Sparta Prague on Thursday night at St Mary’s stadium.
The hero of the night was unquestionably Charlie Austin after scoring twice before the halfway mark and then Jay Rodriguez finished it off in added time, which secured their first win under manager Claude Puel.
Dream start to the European adventure
Before the game started Puel made several changes to his team that started in the 2-1 loss away to Arsenal as captain Jose Fonte was dropped to the bench which allowed Virgil van Dijk to take the armband for the first time.
However, the home fans had reason to lift the roof off the stadium in the early stages as they watched their side take the lead within the opening five minutes, as Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s perfect pass in the inside-right found Austin in open space.
He unleashed a cross but it hit the arm of a sliding Costa Nhamoinesu just inside out the box, however, it wasn’t a straightforward decision as the referee and his officials took time in making their controversial decision to allow a kick from the spot.
Austin eventually took the run up to send the ball low into the bottom corner to give the Saints the early lead and the inspired confidence that followed.
In the 26th minute Austin had the ball in the net again, heading in after an impressive cross from Martina, but to Saints dismay the forward was ruled offside and the efforts meaningless.
Austin proved his worth
But that didn’t matter as less than a minute later the pair joined up again for the second goal of the night.
Martina’s initial cross was blocked but the ball found itself back to his feet and he sent it magnificently towards the back-post where it found Austin, who was in the right place at the right time. His headed effort beat Tomas Koubek in the visitor’s goal.
The second confidence boost meant Saints could hold on to the advantage through to the half-time whistle and they started the second half with a spring in their step.
Saints continued to find space in midfield as they broke down the Sparta backline, while Fraser Forster in the home goal wasn’t really put through his paces heading into the hour mark.
But the tempo of the game soon changed when in the 68th-minute substitute David Lafata, the Czech side top goal scorer, fired what many would think a fierce half-volley at Forster, but the 'keeper was able to deal with the ball.
Puel made his first set of substitutions of the night, Nathan Redmond replaced Tadic and Austin received a standing ovation for the night's efforts, when he was replaced by Rodriguez.
Southampton couldn't find the back of the net again until the second minute of added time, when the elusive third goal finally came. Saints broke forward and Shane Long squared the pass into the path of Rodriguez, who calmly slotted the ball into the bottom corner.
It was the perfect end to an almost faultless performance for Southampton and a dream start to their Europa League campaign.